Sun, Apr 24, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Just who hears what when the political dog whistle blows?

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Issue-labeling received its first big boost a century ago when the presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan decided that free silver was the paramount issue. Since then, our burning questions on economics have gone through bread-and-butter and pocketbook issues, while war-and-peace controversies are gut issues that can turn into switcher issues. The louche canon's "zipper problem" has been elevated to the character issue, and the social issue can heat up into a hot-button issue.

Issue-ism has a new entry: the dog-whistle issue is upon us, brought about -- possibly from Down Under -- by the rise of dog-whistle politics.

"The dog-whistle politics that worked in the campaign," editorialized the Chattanooga Times Free Press last month, "are not working when it comes to governing." During his 2004 campaign for re-election, President Bush criticized the Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision upholding slavery. Because that pre-Civil War ruling was later overturned as a violation of human rights, Bush's historical reference was seized upon by some activists as a subtle signal that he might nominate a Supreme Court justice who would favor overturning Roe v. Wade one day.

"The potential double meaning rekindled speculation among Mr. Bush's critics," reported David D. Kirkpatrick in the New York Times, "that he communicates with his conservative Christian base with a dog whistle of code words and symbols, deliberately incomprehensible to secular liberals."

The compound adjective, based on the metaphor of the use of a whistle inaudible to the human ear in shepherding, has gripped journalism in the English-speaking world: "Over the past few weeks, a new expression has entered the Westminster lexicon: dog-whistle politics," reported The Economist from London last month. "It means putting out a message that, like a high-pitched dog whistle, is only fully audible to those at whom it is directly aimed. The intention is to make potential supporters sit up and take notice while avoiding offending those to whom the message will not appeal." The magazine attributed the origin to a political consultant from Australia: "It seems likely that Lynton Crosby, the Tories' Australian campaign director, is responsible for importing dog-whistle politics to Britain."

Seems, madam, but perhaps not is. Early in 2004, Peter Manning, a former reporter who teaches journalism at the University of Technology in Sydney, wrote a short book examining derogatory characterizations of Muslims titled Dog Whistle Politics and Journalism. He quoted Mike Steketee, a reporter for The Australian, who defined the term as "where a subliminal message, not literally apparent in the words used, is heard by sections of the community." I found the phrase in a March 4, 1997, issue of his newspaper, referring to "the federal government's social policies -- dog-whistle politics, as the Americans have termed it."

The Americans? Reached in Sydney, Steketee had second thoughts about the place of origin. "Dog-whistle politics entered the political language around the time of Pauline Hanson in 1996 or 1997," the modest Aussie recalled, when liberals charged that Prime Minister John Howard was insufficiently aghast at statements of an anti-immigration candidate. "I'd like to claim credit for it, but I can't; I'd remember if I thought up such a clever phrase."

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